Arts | Music

Maori-Mentored, Soul-Singing Mom Inspired 'The Sapphires'

NPR | March 23, 2013 5:13 a.m. | Updated: March 23, 2013 10:31 a.m.

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NPR Staff

In the late 1960s, an all-girl singing group hit it big. But they didn’t come from Detroit or Memphis — the four young aboriginal women hailed from the Australian Outback.

At the time, aboriginal people were just gaining basic civil rights, like voting and being counted as Australian citizens. The girls faced intense racism at home, but they took their act all the way to Vietnam to entertain American troops.

A new film, The Sapphires, is loosely based on their story. Its plot might seem improbable, but Tony Briggs, who wrote the screenplay, knows just how true it is: One of the original, real-life Sapphires is his mother, Laurel Robinson.

Singing Soul

As Robinson tells NPR’s Scott Simon, while she didn’t grow up hearing soul music, once she discovered it, she fell in love. “As a young girl, we grew up listening to country and western, or, you know, the likes of Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers,” she says. “The first time I heard soul music was when my cousins brought home these records.”

Robinson’s church group would invite African-American musicians who were visiting Australia to play for them. That’s how they caught on to soul, she says, “and we loved it.”

In the film, an Irish musician named Dave teaches the four young women how to deliver soul music, exhorting them to sing with “the tone of a woman who’s grasping and fighting and desperate to retrieve what’s been taken from her.” In real life, Robinson says, their musical education came from even more surprising sources.

“We were taught by the New Zealand Maori band that we went over with to Vietnam,” she says. “They taught us how to sing and the breathing … and they loved our harmonies.”

The ‘Stolen Generation’

One of the film’s heartbreaking elements appears in the form of the character Kay, a cousin who lives in the city. She’s part of Australia’s “stolen generation” — one of the thousands of light-skinned aboriginal children taken from their homes and given to white families elsewhere in Australia. Just this week, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered a national apology for the policy of forced adoptions. “By saying sorry, we can correct the historical record,” she announced. “We can declare that these mothers did nothing wrong.”

The “stolen generation” may have made international news this week, but it’s always been a personal issue for Briggs and Robinson. As Robinson explains, “My mother[‘s] three sisters were taken away — the oldest sister was 16 — to a home where they were taught to do domestic work, and then they were farmed out to different families.”

Robinson’s mother escaped purely by luck; just 3 years old at the time, she happened to be in the hospital when her sisters were taken. She didn’t see them again until she was 16.

“When they were taken away, my grandmother was heard moaning just out in the field, crying and moaning. That was so heartbreaking,” Robinson says. “Even when she used to tell us as we got older — our grandmother finally, you know, talked about it — we would cry for her, because [of] the heartache she went through, that hundreds of aboriginal families went through.”

Briggs says there’s a reason he decided to make this national tragedy part of his screenplay.

“It was impossible for me to tell a story from this period without talking about these issues,” he says. “It’s vitally important that I express these things, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing justice to the people who have done things for me, that have allowed me to be sitting in a studio in New York talking to [you]. It would not be right.”

Adventures In Vietnam

Briggs says that the real story of his mother’s singing career is even more astonishing than what’s in the film. “The stories that Mom had told me, they were so rich in adventure,” he says. “They had not only gone to Vietnam, but they went to the Philippines and Singapore, as well… I had to extract little bits and pieces from her adventures in most of those places.”

But Robinson’s real trip to Vietnam didn’t go as smoothly as it does in the film. In protest against the Vietnam War, two of the band members didn’t go with them. “We sort of just parted ways for a while, and now all we do is sing at family reunions or community get-togethers,” she says.

Still, there are parts of the trip that will stay with her forever, like an outdoor show that didn’t look very promising when they first arrived. “I thought, there’s nobody here, there’s no audience, no chairs or anything; it was a makeshift stage,” she says. “But they said, ‘Don’t worry about that; get the show ready.’ So we did.” The girls stepped into the back to get changed for their show.

“We heard all this noise,” Robinson continues. “When I peeked out to have a look, I could see all these tanks rolling in — with soldiers all over them, you know — coming to see the show. I think it was one of the best shows we ever did. When we finished we went off-stage, and when we came out there was no one there. We just saw them disappearing into the jungle. That’s a vision I’ll always carry with me, for the rest of my life.”

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